Chris Van Dusen and Matt Tavares have a lot in common.
Not only are they both children’s book authors and illustrators from Maine, they have the same publisher — Candlewick Press — and they both just completed new books about baseball.
Candlewick ran with the theme and decided to publish both books on the same day. Van Dusen and Tavares have joint appearances scheduled in bookstores in Maine and New Hampshire from now into May.
Tavares, a Bates College graduate who lives with his family in Ogunquit, wrote about his father’s childhood hero in “There Goes Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived.”
Van Dusen’s main character is fictional, a nerdy little boy who loves to play baseball but always seems to strike out. “Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit” tells the story (in rhyme) of how this geeky but smart kid builds a giant robot that saves his town from destruction by a fireball from outer space.
Van Dusen, 51, is also the artist who drew the current version of the Maine lobster license plate. He lives in Camden with his wife, Lori, and a yellow Lab named Pearl. They have two sons, Ethan and Tucker, who are 20 and 18, respectively.
Van Dusen recently spoke with us about his new book and his life as an illustrator and author.
Q: Your style, especially with this book, has a real retro feel to it. There’s lots of mid-century-style furniture in Randy’s house, the TV has rabbit ears, there’s wood paneling. Where does that sensibility come from?
A: I’m attracted to things from the ’50s and ’60s, that whole sort of retro feel, so a lot of my books have that kind of style to them. It’s just because I like things from that era. I like the colors, I like the patterns. It was when I was growing up, so I like the toys from that era, which sort of feature prominently in this book.
Q: You drew robots when you were a kid. Is that where the idea for having a robot as a main character came from?
A: I collect toy robots, so in my studio I have this whole line of robots that sort of look over me while I’m working. And I used to have robots when I was a kid, too, so I’ve always been fascinated with robots, and I love toy robots. And so I’ve wanted to do a book that featured a robot.
Q: Did you model the robot after one of the ones in your collection, or did you just make him up?
A: The robot that Randy builds, the big robot, is one that I made up, but in his room when he’s playing with his robots earlier on in the book, those are all existing robots. And I have a few of those, but I don’t have all of them. One of them is really rare, actually, and it’s very, very expensive. I’d really like to have it, but I don’t, so I painted it instead. (Laughs.)
Q: When you first conceived of Randy Riley, did you already have an idea in your head of what he would look like? Or does a main character like that just develop organically?
A: I kind of had an idea of what I wanted him to look like. He’s basically kind of a nerdy little kid, but he’s very, very smart, too. And so I had the glasses that sort of gave that intellectual look to him, I thought, and the hair is kind of like the hair that I had when I was a kid (laughing) and actually, there’s a lot of Randy Reilly in me. I wanted to be a good baseball player, but I really wasn’t. But I had other talents that sort of got me through. And that’s basically what Randy’s all about. He wants to succeed in baseball, but he’s just not cut out for it, so he succeeds in other ways.
Q: Did your own children ever give you ideas when they were growing up?
A: Oh, yeah. My third book was a book called “If I Built a Car.” The idea popped into my head one day about this book, but I hadn’t started writing it yet. I remember coming down to the breakfast table one morning, you know, and this is back when we all still ate together. I think it was a weekend morning. We were sitting around the breakfast table and I said to the kids, who were pretty young at the time, “Hey, I’m thinking about writing a book about this boy who imagines this dream car. If you’re going to build a car and it could have anything in it or do anything, what would you do?”
They just started rattling off these really clever ideas, and I was jotting them down as fast as I could. And actually, some of the things made it into the book. Like, the car that Jack built in the book, you find as you read the story that it can do crazier and crazier things, and at one point the car goes under water and acts as a submarine. My original idea was to have it float and have a glass bottom, because I’ve always been fascinated by glass-bottom boats. So I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could drive this car into the water and then you could see the fish underneath?” And then one of my sons said, “Why doesn’t it just go underwater?” And I thought well, yeah, that’s a lot better, so scratch that idea and add the submarine idea.
Q: In this age of computer games and Kindles, do you ever worry about the future of children’s books? Would your illustrations look the same on a Kindle?
A: Well, the e-readers are a big controversy in the publishing world. It seems like they’re here to stay, but there are certain people, even friends of mine who write and illustrate books, who are concerned about it. But the type of books that I do, I don’t think they can be easily replaced by a screen.
Now, that said, I should say that when Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire, one of the things they did was they highlighted one of my books in their promotional material, which was very nice and very flattering, and it certainly increased the interest in the book. But I saw it and, to be honest, I still prefer to hold the book in my lap and have the full-sized illustrations there.
To me, having a children’s book, and especially when you’re reading a picture book to a young person, there’s nothing like having that tactile quality of having the book in your lap and physically turning the pages and being able to just look at all the details in the illustrations.
I don’t know, I have a hard time curling up with a screen on a couch. But that’s just me. I don’t want to talk them down, because they’re definitely great in certain circumstances, like if somebody was going on vacation and was an avid reader, I could see them loading a bunch of books onto a Kindle and taking that to the beach. Knock on wood, I don’t think the picture book is dead yet.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: